The President is Gone, Long Live the President!

By N Sathiya Moorthy

There is an English maxim: ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King’. In the erstwhile British imperial context, it has had a constitutional implication, that too in and for a nation that has no written Constitution as in Sri Lanka, for instance. The maxim means that when individuals occupying the throne may pass on, the throne that they occupy, the nation of which they are sworn to secure and protect, remain (even if not eternal).

The election of a new President, whether interim until next elections are due or not, is only a Sri Lankan adaptation of the maxim that applies to all governments, democracies or dictatorships, autocracies or oligarchies. Post-Independence Ceylon had its Prime Minister.Under the Second Republican Constitution, still in vogue, it became the President, the Executive President, on whom the people, through the instrument of Parliament, conferred equally sky-high powers that everyone wants to go – but would not let go of while in power.

It may be a different situation now, after the Aragaalaya protests, hence the Executive Presidency may actually end this time. But is the real problem with the abundance of power in the hands of a single person occupying multiple seats of power – as the Head of State, Head of Government and Head of the Cabinet, apart from being the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, which only is by default in comparison – or, is it actually about the personality, politics and ability of an individual to win a popular mandate in nation-wide direct elections?

If one accepts that the latter also matters, even if not wholly for argument’s sake, whether Prime Minister or President, he or she is going to do precisely as much – whether empowered under the Constitution or not. When J R Jayawardena ushered in the Second Republican Constitution, he was not the Executive President. Instead, in the 1977 parliamentary elections that were for the indirectly-elected Prime Minister, he had won over four-fifths of all parliamentary seats, empowering him figuratively and otherwise to impose his will on an unsuspecting nation. The Executive Presidency was born.

The only way to change it all is again through the application of the constitutional route, by amending the very same Constitution. That is the beauty and protection that the constitutional scheme offers the nation’s populace. Recourse to any other course would lead to anarchy. Was it the means and method that was in the mind of the ‘Aragalaya’ protestors, when they asked the Rajapaksas to go – or, later added Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the list?

Yet, across the democratic world, there is no inherent or in-built antidote to a popular leader elected to power assuming an autocratic power, directly as Executive President or as Prime Minister heading the government under a parliamentary scheme, other than healthy democratic precedents – which is what is lacking in Sri Lanka. Whether Executive President or Prime Minister, the party and parliamentarians need the leader to win elections. When the party loses, again it is the leader who loses it for the party. Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 presidential poll defeat is a case in point.

While borrowing the idea of Executive Presidency from the US scheme, JRJ could transplant all that was written into the statue. He could not and did not inspire and imbibe the American scheme of division of powers and congressional pride that had been built into the individual and the system through decades and centuries. He could not have hoped to change his own mindset or that of his party MPs and cadres and also the larger Sri Lankan voters, through a stroke of his pen. Not that he cared or attempted, even as much.

Might is right

In the case of incumbent Wickremesinghe, the Aragalaya protestors wanted him out only because he was named by President Gota, as Prime Minister, to succeed elder brother Mahinda, whose exit the latter thought alone would be enough to save his throne, not necessarily ‘the throne’. Now, as President, elected duly by the constitutionally-mandated Parliament, too, they want him to go. Of course, there was/is a belief that Ranil would protect the Rajapaksas, which is only half true. But the crux of the matter is that at least this section of the protestors want to walk over the Constitution and the parliamentary process, again and again and again.

In his previous innings as Prime Minister under less-controversial President Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil had Gota, brother Basil and nephew Namal, imprisoned on corruption charges – which, thanks to a lethargic system, never reached the trial stage until after the Rajapaksas had returned – or, the voters had brought back the Rajapaksas, whatever the justification. Whom do you blame for the Rajapaksas’ return – the Rajapaksas alone, or the Sri Lankan voters, who made it happen?

This is the uniqueness of the situation. The Aragalaya protestors who wanted the Rajapaksas thrown out – and they ultimately succeeded – did not prescribe any punishment for the voters who (alone) brought them back. Even today, as section of them want the ‘right-to-recall’ enshrined in a new Constitution, which they say, they (alone) would dictate, through village-level ‘people’s groups’. Such a right is very much a part of the Constitution, already. It provides for the voter recalling/voting out the errant leader at the helm in the next elections. Instead of an erratic, unfixed periodicity, the current scheme mandates a five-year term/gap for the purpose.

It should be understood that such a gap is required for the voter to assess the overall performance of the ruler that they had elected while the nation was on a campaign-mode. It is worse in this social media era. This flows from the understanding that no human can be perfect and not everyone of his decisions, whether in government leadership or not, can be perfect. Democracy is the sum total of the public opinion, in turn, as a sum total of their experiences weighted against their earlier expectations from individual leaders and their political parties in the electoral fray.

Yet, the exit of the Rajapaksas is now a reality, whether or not the spirit of the Constitution as different from the letter thereof provides for the same. It does not mean, nor does it licence the eternal repeat of such a course – for those outside the parliamentary scheme, as voters, can dictate the future course. In simple language, that is ‘anarchy’ for you. Under such a ‘scheme’ (?), might is right, and the mightier one is in terms of muscle-power (of contemporary kind), more righteous does he claim to be – and believes himself to be.

Is this the ‘spirit of Aragalaya’, or is this all the protestors across the country want? Or, is it the carefully plotted course of a section of the protestors, who had already hijacked the Aragalaya, planted their own versions in towns and villages where the protests did not sprout on their own, and then claim victory, also in the name of those that had not charted out or provided for such a goal?

Skewed argument

When the more identifiable and vocal section of the Aragalaya protestors argued that Ranil could not claim to become President under the given circumstances, or even accept the nominated job of the Prime Minister earlier, they were only speaking half-truth. Yes, the voters rejected not only Ranil, but also his party, namely, the UNP, the nation’s GoP, squarely in the 2020.

Even Ranil’s parliamentary seat is a charity under the ‘proportional representation’ scheme that provides for ‘National List’ MPs, based on the vote-share of individual parties / groups. There again, he had to fight with equally-ambitious party members who would not want to leave the sole seat that the party got under the National List, to a leader, who had entrenched himself too well and yet lost it all for the party through the past decades. So much so, in an unprecedented way, which possibly foretold what all was to come by the nation, Ranil could join Parliament only months and sessions after the inaugural.

But then, what about the contestants? If Ranil was rejected even for an MP’s seat in 2020, his present-day bete noire Sajith Premadasa was rejected twice in a matter of months. On both occasions, the Sri Lankan voters, especially the majority, southern Sinhala voters, preferred only the Rajapaksas, whom they had rejected squarely once earlier in 2015. They voted in Gota as President and facilitated the return of two-term President Mahinda’s return, this time to the sinecure job of Prime Minister.

First, it was as the presidential candidate of Ranil-led UNP in November 2019, and later as leader of the breakaway SJB, when Sajith Premadasa presented himself as the prime ministerial nominee of not just a party, but a larger alliance. Even his 42-per cent vote-share in the presidential poll in 2019 had a substantial component from his alliance partners, mostly multiple political parties representing the nation’s ‘triple minorities’.

Then came the parliamentary polls in August 2020. Sajith offered himself this time as the prime ministerial candidate of the breakaway SJB-led combine. The voters rejected him a second time. Does it mean that Sajith is less qualified than Ranil to become President under the circumstances? Or, will his electoral fortune too would witness a reversal, as in the case of Ranil, if and if only he had the staying power, fighting spirit and tact of the other?

Less said about JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake, whose party the voter has always rejected the better.,. Each election has given them fewer votes than the previous one in both presidential and parliamentary polls – and fewer seats in the latter. As far back as the nation-wide local government polls of 2006, only months after they had helped SLFP’s Mahinda Rajapaksa become President, yes, defeating UNP’s Ranil, by a wafer-thin majority, the JVP could not win even one local government body across the country.

Should the JVP have gone out of political or electoral business, then and there? It is one such skewed argument that is now being presented to the nation for rejecting faces that some groups did not like for reasons that are not always based on sound principles, but possibly based, instead, on skewed ideology.

Does any of it make sense?

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

1 COMMENT

  1. Anyone trying to make “sense” of the Sri Lankan political system needs psychiatric help.

    The JVP will have their day again. They will provide the dissatisfied youth the option for a more “explosive” expression of their frustration.

    The scum in parliament think they have engineered a democratic coup through Machiavellian machinations and manoeuvring and regained control of their destiny. This is the contempt with which the electorate is treated.

    This time however, one does not have to be Einstein to realise the folly of this arrogance, will lead to a more “fatal” reply.

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